Getting Personal: Reflections on My Two Decades as a Colorado Realtor

I’m writing this from a hotel room in Athens, following an 11-day cruise of the Aegean Sea, so real estate isn’t top of mind for me right now. I needed something that would be easy to write, and it occurred to me to share my path from newly licensed agent over 20 years ago to where I am today. Maybe it will interest a few readers.

I was originally licensed as a Colorado real estate agent in April 2002, so I’m well into my third decade as a real estate broker.

Real estate is a tough field to break into. Back in 2002, new brokers received a one-year initial license. More than half of new licensees would not renew their license at the end of their first year because they had completed few or no transactions, burned through savings, and thought it futile to continue.

As I recall it, my gross commission income that first year was about $7,000. In my second year, it was about $75,000, and in my third year it was $150,000. These are gross figures, because back then we were all “independent contractors” and we had to cover all the costs of being in business — computers, software, MLS dues, Realtor dues, E&O insurance, cell phones, car expenses, and self-employment tax. And most of those expenses came upfront, so waiting six months or longer for a first commission check was hard for anyone who wasn’t prepared to go thousands of dollars in the hole before earning a reliable income.

Fortunately, I did have the financial reserves to outlast that “newbie drought,” and I did go at least $30,000 negative before going positive, ultimately becoming quite successful.

When a real estate license is first issued, you have to hang your license with a brokerage. You may be an independent contractor, but you can’t be an independent broker until you have two years’ experience as a broker associate and pass a 24-hour employing broker’s class.

I was drawn into getting a real estate license by attending a career night at Coldwell Banker, so hanging my license with them was an easy decision, and they had a two-week “Fast Start” class for new agents taught by Rich Sands which gave me the tools and understanding I needed to put my financial reserves to work. “You have to spend money to make money,” I reminded myself as I invested heavily in a full-time career as a real estate broker.

I’ll never forget what Rich said in the very first session of that 2-week intensive class. “Congratulations,” he told my classmates and me, “you are now licensed to sell real estate, and there are 20,000 agents out there with more experience than you. How are you going to make yourself stand out from them?”

At the time I was chair of the speakers bureau for Habitat for Humanity of Metro Denver, so my first thought was to stand out by pledging 10% of every earned commission to Habitat.  I recall getting one listing from that offer, but Habitat wouldn’t promote it, so I dropped that pledge after sending several large checks.  (I’m still active with Habitat and still donate, but not a percentage of each closing.)

The other thing I did — a common strategy recommended by Rich Sands — was to specialize in a particular subdivision and “farm” it for listings. The subdivision I chose was the Village at Mountain Ridge, which had just been developed on the west side of Hwy 93 in Golden.

At the time I had a yellow-naped Amazon parrot, Flower, who I referred to as my “unlicensed personal assistant” and even printed up business cards for her with that title. Countless residents or former residents of Mountain Ridge have pictures of Flower on their children’s shoulders and received her business card which Flower “autographed” by puncturing it with her beak. I served free ice cream at the neighborhood picnic (with Flower, of course), and I sponsored a yearly garage sale. I also published a newsletter with useful information including but not limited to the real estate market for the subdivision.

I did all those things Realtors do to get known and trusted by homeowners — plus some things unique to me.  It worked well.

However, you’re looking at my most successful investment. Using my training as a journalist, which included a summer internship at The Washington Post, I chose from the very beginning to write a real estate column. At first it appeared in The Voice of Golden, then the Golden Transcript, and ultimately other Jeffco weekly newspapers and the Jeffco editions of YourHub. It has been so successful in generating business that for several years now I have paid for it to appear in every edition of YourHub.

At first I wrote this column only once a month, but soon I was writing it weekly, spending $30-50,000 per year to have it published in those newspapers. Almost two decades later, I estimate that I get about 90% of my buyers and sellers from long-time (and newer) readers of this “advertorial.” It has also benefited our broker associates (listed below), since I can’t service all the leads that come to me. As a result, the per-agent business done by Golden Real Estate is much higher than that of other brokerages in this market.

Of course, I didn’t know much about real estate when I started writing this column in 2003, but I would research a topic in order to write about it, and I would ask  my managing broker to review and correct what I wrote before sending it to be published. The process taught me a lot about real estate. It’s my personal continuing education program. You’ve probably heard the expression that “you teach what you need to learn.” I needed to learn all aspects of real estate, and writing this column was how I did that.

Most brokers with my number of years in the business have numerous initials after their name representing the certifications they have earned by taking special classes. These include Accredited Buyer Representative (ABR), Graduate Realtor Institute (GRI), Certified Residential Specialist (CRS), GREEN, e-Pro, Seniors Real Estate Specialist (SRES),  and others. I have none of those certifications, but my writings have given me a broad understanding in all those fields.

I’m not downplaying those classes and certifications — they have helped many of my fellow agents gain knowledge in each field, which is why I look for those initials myself when making referrals.  Those initials evidence real knowledge.

I like to tell a story from my childhood which rings true in this context. One of my 9th grade teachers said in an end-of-term report, “Jim shows dangerous signs of becoming a dilettante.”  I asked Dad what a dilettante was. “It’s a person who knows a little about everything but not a lot about one thing,” he said. “Sounds good to me!” I replied.

As I have written in the past, the biggest contributor to an agent’s expertise — in most but not all cases — besides those certifications is the number of transactions he or she has completed, more so than the number of years in the business. We learn from every transaction, and I have been blessed to have completed hundreds of transactions. The average agent completes only two or three transactions per year, and a high percentage of agents go an entire year without a paycheck. That was true in 2002 and it’s still true today.

Can We Say Goodbye to Agents Claiming to Be ‘5280 Five-Star Professionals’?

For years I have complained about colleagues who claimed that 5280 Magazine had honored them as “Five Star Professionals” when in fact the magazine had nothing to do with the honor.

Rather, Five Star Professionals is a Minnesota company which runs the program by that name and would purchase a large block of pages in the September issue of 5280 Magazine every year to promote the “winners” of that award.

Each year I am notified of my “nomination” to be named a Five Star Professional, and one time I responded to see how their program operates. It’s basically a scheme to get agents to buy, among other things, large display ads at inflated prices within that large block of advertising within 5280 Magazine’s September edition. What bothered me the most was that both 5280 Magazine and Five Star Professional looked the other way when the “winners” would then promote themselves as “5280 Magazine Five Star Professionals” for years to come.

I won’t dispute Five Star Professionals vetting process here (although I have in the past), but I welcome the fact that their advertising may no longer appear in 5280 Magazine and that “winners” can no longer mislead clients and colleagues by implying that the magazine awarded them the Five Star Professional citation.

I only realized this change when I saw Five Star Professional’s block of advertising in last Saturday’s real estate section of the Denver Post. My question now is whether the “winners” will now claim to be “Denver Post Five Star Professionals.”

Searching my email inbox just now, I found several emails with phrases such as the following in some agents’ email signatures: “Recipient of 5280’s ‘Five Star Real Estate Professional’ Award 2019 & 2020!”; and “5280 Magazine Five Star Professional Ten Year Award Winner.”

Most recipients of this “award” are also Realtors, meaning they are bound by the Realtor Code of Ethics, which they are violating when they represent that 5280 Magazine gave them an award that it has nothing to do with.

In my email, I also found a 2017 email from Five Star Professional, offering me, as an awardee, a 1/9th-page display ad in 5280 Magazine for $1,250.  A 1/4-page ad was available for $2,095.

One red flag in Five Star Professional’s program of identifying nominees and awardees was that they would never disclose, even to me, who nominated me. Instead, I got an email which said, “One or more of the clients you work hard to serve every day has nominated you for the Five Star Real Estate Agent Award.”

I consider the whole program suspect and just another example of profiteering on real estate agents who are easy targets for such promotional programs. 

Redfin Survey Suggests Colorado Will See Influx of Buyers Due to Climate Fears

A recent survey of 2,000 U.S. residents by Redfin found that three-quarters of Americans are hesitant to buy homes in areas with a high climate risk. Those risks include more severe hurricanes & tornadoes, flooding, higher temperatures, wildfires, and rising sea levels.

It’s not hard to see why Colorado would be a favored destination for “climate refugees.” I have sold several homes to Californians recently, including just this month to my stepson, who currently lives in Sherman Oaks. 

We Realtors are seeing more and more of our listings going to out-of-state buyers, subjecting local buyers to increased competition in bidding wars.

If you’ve been paying attention to national weather reports, you can understand this trend. In California, the last two fire seasons have been terrifying. Last week’s earthquake in Los Angeles could have added to the situation.

In the Midwest, we have seen tornado after tornado destroying entire neighborhoods. And rising water temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico are promising increasingly severe hurricanes and flooding.

The Redfin survey broke down by age the reluctance of home buyers to purchase a home in such areas. What it found was that buyers between 35 and 44 years old have the highest reluctance, with buyers between 25 and 34 years old having the second highest reluctance to buy in such areas.

Fifty-nine percent of persons between 35 and 44 years old said that the increasing intensity and frequency of natural disasters played a role in their decision about where to move.  Fifty-eight percent said that extreme temperatures played a role, and 48% said that rising sea levels played a role in their decision.

For people 25 to 34 years old, the percentages were 52%, 50% and 35% respectively.

The lowest percentage of reluctance was among the oldest buyers surveyed, those between 55 and 64 years old. (For some unexplained reason, Redfin didn’t survey people 65 and older.) Only 28% of that age group said that natural disasters and rising temperatures were a factor in their decision to buy, and only 15% cited rising sea levels as a factor.

Among my own clients, I have been surprised at how many sellers — all of them seniors — have relocated to Texas and Florida. For some it was to be close to family. For others it was because of lower home prices. They benefited from our runaway seller’s market, buying equivalent homes for much less money in those states.

“Climate change is making certain parts of the country less desirable to live in,” says Redfin’s chief economist. “As Americans leave places that are frequently on fire or at risk of going underwater, the destinations that don’t face those risks will become increasingly competitive and expensive.”

Perhaps the Denver Post should bring back the phrase, “Climate Capital of the World,” below its front-page logo.

Newspaper Headline Gave a Distorted Picture of Real Estate Market Under Covid-19

“Hundreds of sellers pull their homes off market,” read the lead headline on the Business page of last Friday’s Denver Post, but the first sentence of the article noted that “thousands [of sellers] went the other way, rushing to list their homes before a major downturn made a sale tougher to achieve.”

The reporter was referring to March statistics quoted by the chair of the market trends committee of the Denver Metro Association of Realtors.

Let’s look at the actual numbers. Yes, 184 listings that were entered during the month of March were “expired” on the MLS by month’s end. Another 443 listings were “withdrawn,” which means the listing agreement is still in effect, but it is not displayed on the MLS until it is made “active” again.

However, 3,525 listings entered last month are already under contract as I write this on April 5th, and another 467 listings have already closed.  Of the ones that closed, 179 were sold before being entered on the MLS, and of the 308 that were exposed to MLS users as active and had already closed by this past weekend, only 13 took longer than a week to go under contract.

 As I write this on April 5th, there are still 4,289 listings that were entered on the MLS during March and are still active.

So, yes, 184 sellers decided not to sell during March, but 8,122 sellers made their homes active on REcolorado during March and did not withdraw or expire them. Another 443 sellers kept their listing agreement active but without exposure on the MLS.  Presumably their listing agents can still sell those listings privately, perhaps keeping their entire commission instead of having to share it with a buyer’s agent.

So the headline was sort of accurate.

By the way, unless the practice has changed since I was a reporter at the Washington Post and then a headline writer at the New York Post, reporters have no say in the headlines that appear above their articles. Instead, a headline writer on the “copy desk” reads the article briefly and writes a headline that fits the assigned character count. As a result, sometimes the headline doesn’t truly reflect the gist of the article, and that may be the case with last Friday’s article.

From the New York Post, I went on to publish several community newspapers in New York City and instructed my reporters to write their own headlines, not knowing what the character count had to be, so the editor had the reporter’s headline as a guide as he rewrote it to fit. 

Getting back to real estate — sorry, I had to vent! — here are the numbers from March 2019:

A total of 7,968 listings were entered as “active” during March 2019, which is fewer than this year, even if you include the 70 listings that were withdrawn by month’s end.  So, not only was the headline misleading, but this March showed increased activity over March 2019.

The fact that 70 listings were expired prematurely in a “normal” month suggests that not all 184 expired listings this year should be attributed to Covid-19.

The market was “hotter” last year, in that over 400 of that month’s listings went under contract in less than 7 days compared to just under 300 this March.

I invite any and all reporters writing about real estate statistics to let me fact check their conclusions prior to publication. And suggest your own headlines!

Can you tell that I enjoy statistical analysis?

Denver Post Series Uncovers the Corruption of Tax Districts Created by Developers

Four years ago, on Dec. 17, 2015, I devoted this weekly column to explaining why property tax rates vary so much around the metro area, mostly due to the creation by developers of “metropolitan  tax districts” to reimburse themselves for the cost of building the infrastructure for their subdivisions. A follow-up column on July 21, 2016, went into greater detail, giving examples of such tax districts created for Stapleton and Green Valley Ranch in Denver and Solterra and Candelas in Jefferson County. For example, in Candelas, adjacent to Rocky Flats, homeowners are paying a 70-mill tax levy on top of Arvada’s mill levy until the tax district infrastructure bonds are paid off. For a home valued at $500,000, that would be an additional property tax burden of nearly $3,000 per year, which would only increase based on rising property values for 30 years following construction. Below is an excerpt from that column, which quoted mill levies in effect that year:

You can read both columns at, where all my prior columns are archived – or simply click on the links provided above.

It was clear to me back then that homeowners would not recognize the special tax burden they would be facing as they purchased homes, since disclosure of that tax burden is buried in the flurry of documents buyers have to sign at closing.

Now, with more and more owners of homes in such subdivisions realizing what they got themselves into and how unfair it is, it was inevitable that some investigative reporter would dig into this topic in a way that I could not as a full-time Realtor. 

Earlier this month, investigative reporter David Migoya’s multi-part series on this important topic was published in the Denver Post following eight months of research. Perhaps you read that series.

Migoya provides an excellent summary of what these districts are: “Metro districts are taxing authorities created by subdivision developers, with the consent of the local government, for the sole purpose of selling government-like bonds to finance their projects. Repayment of the bonds is tied to future property taxes assessed to the homes that will eventually be built.”

Among the things I learned from Migoya’s multi-part series that I did not know or realize when I wrote about metropolitan tax districts in 2015 and 2016 was that this device of creating special tax districts for infrastructure investments began to be utilized because 1992’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) made it harder for cities or the county to invest in the infrastructure of new subdivisions, even though these subdivisions would ultimately pay for themselves through new property taxes. (I’m not fully convinced of that argument, since many newer subdivisions, including mine, were built without such tax districts.)

Migoya’s series went further to describe the scheming which kept property owners from being able to control the tax districts once the subdivisions were fully built out.

If you are in one of those newer subdivisions, you probably are subject to such a mill levy. If you didn’t read the series when it was published in the main section of this newspaper, I suggest you Google “Denver Post metropolitan tax districts” and read the full series. It should make your blood boil.

One could apply “scandalous” to how these tax districts were created and are run to profit developers at the expense of unwitting future homeowners, but the fact is that what the developers have done is legal, manipulating laws passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by previous Governors.

As Migoya explained so well in his opening installment on Dec. 5th, “Colorado law permits developers to elect themselves to serve on a district’s board of directors, then use that position to approve tens of millions of dollars in public financing for their businesses, and leverage the property taxes on homes they haven’t yet built. No regulations stop these developer-controlled boards from approving arrangements that are financially advantageous to their business, allowing them to finance overly ambitious plans without fear of liability, knowing future homeowners ultimately shoulder the burden.”

Surely the upcoming legislative session will feature hearings and legislation to address the worst abuses of this tax district tool, but the damage may be irreversible in the state’s 1,800 such existing tax districts, since they were created pursuant to existing laws.

Depending on how aware buyers and their agents become of these oversized tax burdens, the resale value of homes in those subdivisions should reflect the fact that they have a far greater tax burden than comparable homes in areas without such a developer-created tax district.  You can count on Golden Real Estate’s brokers being knowledgeable in this area.

The Value of Local Journalism

I have been concerned that the reduction in the reporting staff at the Denver Post would make investigate series like the one above a thing of the past. The “Afghanistan Papers” series by the Washington Post is another example. Subscribers make the investment in such journalism possible, so thank you for subscribing to the Denver Post.

By the way, please note that our “Real Estate Today” column in the Denver Post also needs your support. It is our primary marketing tool. You can assure this column’s continuation by coming to us with your real estate needs and recommending us to others. Thank you!

Digital Editions & Email Newsletters Are the Future of Newspapers

Are you taking advantage of the “Digital Replica Edition” of the Denver Post? You will not only be able to page through today’s paper, including every YourHub section, but also 30 days of past issues. 

As you page through the digital replica of each section, you can single click on any article or ad to make it larger, or double-click on it for more features including printing. On articles, you can enlarge type size for readability.

As subscription prices rise and the circulation of newspapers keeps declining, digital editions are becoming more and more popular. The Denver Post, like other daily newspapers and magazines (and the Denver Business Journal), charges for access to its digital edition, but it is free with any print subscription, even if you pay for less than 7-day home delivery.

Email newsletters and alerts are another digital frontier for newspapers. They contain links that take you to the full articles on their websites. Digital is increasingly how news will be delivered and how newspapers will survive.

If you’re dropping your print subscriptions to newspapers, remember that you can receive my “Real Estate Today” column by email, too.  Send your request to me at!